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Codex Schoyen: Does this manuscript really contain a very early alternative version of the Gospel of Matthew?

Codex Schoyen 2650 is a very early (AD 300-350?), fragmentary yet substantial manuscript of Matthew's Gospel. It was written in a rare dialect of Coptic (Middle Egyptian), which was the language spoken by many Egyptians in late antiquity. H.-M. Schenke, who reconstructed its fragmentary text and published a transcription with photographs (Hermes Publishing, 2001), made the sensational claim that it is a translation of a "non-canonical" version of Matthew. (For more background: Schoyen Collection).

Schenke stated that Codex Schoyen's text was derived (through Greek translation) from an underlying Hebrew text, reopening the case for an original Hebrew Matthew, and illuminating the famous statement by Papias that Matthew was composed in the Hebrew dialect. Schenke suggested that this Hebrew text was so different from canonical Matthew that early church fathers might have condemned it as incomplete, falsified, and mutilated, as Epiphanius said of the Gospel of the Ebionites. The implications of this striking claim, as Schenke argued, undermine the standard theory of the origins of the first three Gospels, namely, that Mark's Gospel was written first, and that Matthew and Luke incorporated much of Mark into their own Gospels.

More significantly, Schenke's hypothetical retranslation of the Coptic text back into Greek suggests a text wildly divergent from all known manuscripts of Matthew's Gospel. If true, such divergence would be all the more significant since Codex Schoyen may possibly represent the earliest witness in any language to Matthew's Gospel in at least 11 entire chapters. However, Schenke's retranslation assumes that the Coptic was a slavish, "this is that" formal translation of the Greek, often without considering basic factors of translation. Thus, New Testament versions expert Tjitze Baarda wrote an article and a review criticising Schenke's conclusions and calling for further examination of the freedom which an early Coptic translator might have deemed appropriate for himself.

Thus, many of the striking differences found in Codex Schoyen may have been produced at the point of translation, rather than derived from its underlying Greek text. In particular, the translator seemed uninterested in producing a syntactically equivalent translation. This contrasts starkly with Schenke's formal, "this is that" mechanistic retranslation which exaggerates the differences between Codex Schoyen and the rest of the Matthean manuscript tradition. While more analysis is necessary, many differences which initially seem striking probably do not derive from an exotic underlying Greek text, but rather from mundane translation factors and typical scribal tendencies.

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©2009 James M. Leonard


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